28/09/2009 | 15:48:15

Traditional taste

Visitors to Hanoi have an abundance of mouth-watering menu options to choose from when they stop by any of the capital city’s restaurants. For those looking for a truly authentic and traditional experience, however, there are a few stand-out items not to be missed.

Cha ca (sliced grilled fish), for instance, has long been a favorite dish of the Hanoi people. The ancient city has several shops selling the specialty, but for many, cha ca La Vong stands above the rest in terms of quality and flavor.

Both domestic and foreign visitors to Hanoi rave about the fish at Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant, a shop that serves o¬nly this favorite dish. Though difficult to find, a visit to the restaurant is definitely worth the challenge.

The delicacy was created by the Doan family more than 200 years ago, and successive generations continue to prepare the traditional meal at the restaurant today.

The type of fish used in cha ca La Vong, Lang fish or Anh Vu fish (Hemibagrus), was originally offered o¬nly to the feudal kings because of its high quality and sweet-tasting meat.

The fish is first sliced into small pieces and then mixed with spices, according to a secret traditional recipe. It is then roasted over hot coals and served with vegetables and an exquisite shrimp sauce.

The sound and aroma of fresh fish frying over hot burning charcoal gives the feeling of enjoying an authentic home-cooked meal, Hanoi style.

True gastronomes take their time, slowly eating the fish while sipping vodka and savoring every morsel.

The beautiful antique architecture of Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant, with its narrow stairway and gilded wood panels inscribed with ancient characters, gives the space a nostalgic, time-worn ambience. Hanoi’s culinary delights, however, aren’t just limited to fish.

Fried shrimp patties, made with potato and wheat flour, are traditionally served with pickled vegetables and sweet and sour fish sauce.

Overlooking Truc Bach Lake, Banh Tom Ho Tay (West Lake Restaurant) is famous for its scrumptious fried shrimp patties. To make banh tom, wheat flour is mixed with potato and shrimp and then fried in oil. The patties are crispy and sweet-smelling, and served with pickled vegetables and sweet and sour fish sauce. The popular restaurant is always bustling and visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to visit this Hanoi staple.

Pho and bun are two more Hanoi specialties not to be forgotten. Pho Hanoi (Hanoi beef rice noodle) is the traditional dish of the capital city and has been cooked up here for centuries. Good pho consists of a flavorful broth, soft (but not mushy) rice noodles and tender meat. A bowl of hot pho is an essential part of any authentic Hanoi experience. Head to Ly Quoc Su or Bat Dan Street where the selection is plentiful.

Bun thang (Hanoi chicken vermicelli soup) is another dish closely associated with Hanoi and a must-try when visiting the city. It includes chicken, rice vermicelli, lean pork paste or ham, fried egg, o¬nion, salted shrimp and shrimp paste.

Bun cha – vermicelli served with small, savory, crispy and caramelized pork patties – is another quintessential Hanoi noodle dish. A heaping mound of bun is piled o¬n a plate and arrives with a bowl of warm, fish sauce-based broth with slices of lightly pickled green papaya and carrot. This is accompanied by a basket of fresh herbs and vegetables including lettuce, bean sprouts, and spicy Vietnamese herbs.

The main flavor of bun cha comes from the tiny grilled pork patties or fatty pork slices which are added to the broth before serving. The broth can be adjusted to taste with fresh chili slices, minced garlic, or even a spoonful of vinegar infused with spices. To eat the dish, dip the noodles into the broth and take a bite together with the smoky, savory caramelized pork pieces.

The classic accompaniment to bun cha is nem cua be (fried spring rolls), which are a combination of minced pork, crab meat, vermicelli, mushrooms and bean sprouts, wrapped in
rice paper and then fried.

Dac Kim Restaurant is a favorite amongst locals for bun cha and nem cua be. Despite having to hike up four flights of narrow winding stairs to reach the restaurant, the journey is worth the generous portions offered up here for just VND30,000 (US$2).

Last but not least, the Nguyen Son Bakery should be included in any visit to Hanoi. With several outlets across the city, the relatively new bakery chain offers up a variety of delicious cakes and drinks. Make sure to drop by its floating house location at 9 Thanh Nien Street to enjoy the resplendent beauty of Truc Bach Lake while sipping a tasty beverage or sampling scrumptious baked goods.

When visiting the ancient capital of Hanoi, be sure to try a few of the city’s traditional delicacies and experience the time-honored flavors its people are famous for rice paper and then fried./. Hanoi Times

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